- By Matt Hayes
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Like mule deer, Rocky Mountain elk are an iconic species of the West and also are cherished by hunters, conservationists, and wildlife enthusiasts worldwide. Although some elk populations have suffered declines, most populations throughout the West have prospered through an expansion of their range and increase in abundance in recent decades. Elk initially recolonized the Greater Little Mountain Area (GLMA) in southwest Wyoming in the late 1940s, and have remained mostly stable or increasing since that time. Decades after recolonization, elk in the GLMA remain at or above desired objectives, whereas mule deer have failed to recover to historic levels.
The GLMA is a high-desert ecosystem characterized by a diverse vegetative community of subalpine fir at high elevations to salt desert shrub and sagebrush at lower elevations along Flaming Gorge Reservoir. High-desert systems harbor some of the most highly coveted elk hunting opportunities in the West, and are world-renowned for quality elk harvested in these areas—the GLMA is no exception. With harvest success rates for elk well above 70 percent in the GLMA, it’s no surprise that big game hunters spent $4.8 million to pursue elk in the GLMA in the past five years. Despite liberal harvest throughout the area, elk continue to thrive suggesting high reproductive output and survival in this population.
For obvious reasons, most elk research aims to understand the factors influencing populations that are declining or exist at a fraction of historic population levels. Although the motivation behind this type of research is meaningful and necessary to understand the causes of elk decline, we have a unique opportunity in the GLMA to take a proactive approach in understanding the “recipe” for a productive and healthy elk population in an effort to maintain robust herds of elk in some of the most coveted areas that exist in high-desert systems. Being such a prized and cherished area to hunters and outdoor enthusiasts alike, the GLMA serves as an ideal laboratory for high-caliber research in hopes of understanding the factors that maintain species that the GLMA is renowned for.
We are excited to announce a new partner of the Deer-Elk Ecology Research Project. The Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust (WWNRT), a key conservation agency whose mission is to enhance and conserve wildlife habitat and natural resource values throughout the state, has provided critical funding to the DEER Project, and of which also will allow for the opportunity to examine survival, and cause-specific mortality of elk calves. This means that in addition to capturing mule deer fawns in the upcoming summer, we will be capturing, collaring, and monitoring elk calves belonging to our radiomarked adult female elk in the GLMA. Our goal is to understand nutrition and reproduction of elk, by examining calf survival and recruitment while simultaneously examining contributions of habitat selection, nutritional condition, and age of the mother, as well as predation, weather, and disease to understand what factors contribute to maintaining productive and healthy elk herds in high-desert systems of the West.